David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s, wrote a curious piece last week on the power of feelings. The piece begins with a straightforward observation about the power of feelings in the debates about Britain’s role in Europe.
The Leave/Remain divide operates at different levels. During the campaign there were many arguments and claims made on both sides (‘the facts that you should know’), the truth of which were disputed; and that argument continues to play out. But underlying such argument, such reasoning and the quest for truth, are the feelings that drove much of the debate and which were very powerful in deciding what people thought.
He then extends this observation to the debate amongst Christians about the role of women, and the current debate in the C of E about sexuality.
We can’t treat these as simply rational matters, problems to be intellectually solved, issues of proclaiming biblical truth or avoiding it. As the practice of Shared Conversations acknowledges, until those on either side (or none) can recognise the power of feelings over what all of us think – and not just over what those on the other side think – we’ll be unable to engage honestly to find an understanding of how to move forward together.
He is quite correct to note that, in both cases, personal feelings and feelings about how we relate to others have shaped our views, and that, on both sides of each debate, many (or even most?) people have not simply been persuaded by rational argument. In fact, powerful feelings might even have made us immune to the actual facts of the matter. So far, so indisputable. But what is less clear is what role Ison thinks feelings should play in discerning the truth in any of these debates. He appears to suggest that, far from feelings obscuring the truth or making us immune to it, they somehow form part of the truth that we need to be shaped by.
Martin Seeley has highlighted the issue of the interpretation of scripture. But this isn’t simply choosing to negotiate on the principles by which we interpret scripture in order to decide what is true. It involves a whole raft of feelings and loyalties, a commitment to a community who see scripture in a particular way, an emotional commitment which is quite independent of intellectual inquiry. We have an emotional investment in what we believe, and we don’t just change it because the opposing argument is good.
The key question here (which I think Ison ducks) is: how do we allow good arguments to both engage with as well as challenge and transform our feelings?
This is a wider question than the particular things under consideration here—and in fact applies to most aspects of Christian ministry. Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale, has just published Against Empathy, in which he argues, on the basis of both clinical studies as well as careful reasoning, that identifying emotionally with the feelings of others, far from leading to better and more compassionate decisions, is not only highly misleading but actually damaging to people for whom we ought to be caring.
I want to make a case for the value of conscious, deliberative reasoning in everyday life, arguing that we should strive to use our heads rather than our hearts.
Bloom is here not arguing against compassion, nor against the importance of empathetic feelings for enriching our lives. He first clarifies what he means by ‘empathy’, since people use the term in different ways.
By empathy I mean feeling the feelings of other people. So if you’re in pain and I feel your pain — I am feeling empathy toward you. If you’re being anxious, I pick up your anxiety. If you’re sad and I pick up your sadness, I’m being empathetic. And that’s different from compassion. Compassion means I give your concern weight, I value it. I care about you, but I don’t necessarily pick up your feelings.
A lot of people think this is merely a verbal distinction, that it doesn’t matter that much. But actually there’s a lot of evidence in my book that empathy and compassion activate different parts of the brain. But more importantly, they have different consequences. If I have empathy toward you, it will be painful if you’re suffering. It will be exhausting. It will lead me to avoid you and avoid helping. But if I feel compassion for you, I’ll be invigorated. I’ll be happy and I’ll try to make your life better.
He is also aware of how important an emotion empathy is in enriching our lives and making us fully human.
It’s a wonderful source of pleasure, for instance. The joy of fiction would disappear if we couldn’t, on some level, empathize with the characters. A lot of our intimacy would fade. I think empathy is central to sex. It’s great for all sorts of things. In the moral domain, however, empathy leads us astray. We are much better off if we give up on empathy and become rational deliberators motivating by compassion and care for others.
Why does Bloom think that our feelings are so misleading? He sets out five primary reasons.
- We naturally find it easier to empathise with people who are more like us, so this will distort our judgement of what matters and who matters.
- As a result of this, we fail to see the wood for the trees. We will find it harder to make decisions that affect more people, perhaps at a distance from us and those in the future, because we prioritise the immediate impact of decisions on those close to us.
- At a personal level, having our decisions based on feelings of empathy—rather than rationally-informed compassion—can lead to unhealthy asymmetric relationships.
- This in turn also makes such relationships emotionally exhausting—which can actually lead to our inability to act with compassion. One of Bloom’s readers bears this out:
I worked for sixteenth months on night shift at one of the country’s top children’s hospitals caring for kids with cancer…Every night, when I came to work, I knew that perhaps two of the seven children I would be caring for would eventually die. Nothing altered those statistics. Some were very young. Some had only a mother who was carrying too great a load. Worst of all, two were dying with no family ever visiting them. Empathy had a role in what I was doing, but only a limited one. I simply couldn’t grasp what it was like to be Eli, two years old and dying with only an emotionally distraught mother for support. Trying to do that would only leave me too distracted to do my job. Instead, I focused on what I needed to do.
5. Empathy can prevent us giving people what they really need—not to feel their feelings, but to be there for them. Bloom recounts the experience of an author who needed treatment:
She met with one doctor who was cold and unsympathetic to her concerns, which caused her pain. But she is grateful to another who kept a reassuring distance and objectivity: “I didn’t need him to be my mother—even for a day—I only needed him to know what he was doing,” she writes. “His calmness didn’t make me feel abandoned, it made me feel secure. . . . I needed to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo.”
In all of these ways, attending too much to feelings obscures reality and inhibits the making of good decisions. If this is true in everyday life, it is even more clearly so in the debates that Ison mentions. Yes, we need to recognise the importance of people’s emotional response to the Brexit debate—but then surely we need to ask some critical questions about those feelings. Are fears of immigration justified, or not? What are the reasons for the sense of marginalisation that many feel? And will voting in a particular way (in a referendum or a presidential election) actually lead to the changes that we want? Ison is right: we are not merely rational creatures. But we are rational, and our reason can function in a way to allow us to question the often more primitive emotions that grip us.
You can see some of the dynamics that Bloom highlights in the debates in the Church on sexuality as well. Public debates in Synod and elsewhere have often been highly charged, and the emotional contributions are often the ones that have shaped the debate, regardless of whether such emotions stood up to scrutiny. Avoidance of emotional ‘harm’, most often understood as denying people the right to free expression of their impulses, is quickly becoming the unanswerable case that closes down further discussion. Any suggestion that there are wider considerations to be explored is portrayed as callous and unfeeling.
Ison offers a fascinating window into the way focussing on feelings obscures what is really happening. He refers to having ‘changed his mind’ on the issue of sexuality for a range of reasons, and then deploys the emotive language of ‘exclusion’ and ‘expulsion’ from a group who ‘have a different view’. There is in fact no process of ‘expulsion’ from being an evangelical, since it is a loosely-defined term. But if Ison’s view is now different from the majority of evangelicals, why not be honest and admit so? If he has moved, whilst others have not been persuaded to do so, why not simply say that? It might not be any less painful—but it might be a bit more honest.
But the prioritisation of feelings (note Ison’s title ‘The Power of Feeling Over Thinking’) has key theological importance too. The first thing this does is individualise our discussion. If I feel a certain way, then no-one else can tell me how I am feeling, and if feeling is prioritised over thinking, then no-one else is allowed to ask those reflective questions as to whether my feelings offer a true depiction of the world, or whether they arise from misunderstanding, selfishness or anger. This in turn privatises all decision-making. Because feelings, unlike reasons, are internal, then there is no possibility of public exchange, no forum in which things can be assessed, debated and decided. Here Ison is right: in the debates about Brexit, women in leadership, and sexuality in the church, feelings have held sway, and debate has ground to a halt. But the solution to this is not simply to dwell on the feelings; it is to dethrone feelings as the power that has locked us into stalemate, and submit those feelings to scrutiny, on all sides.
At root, what Ison fails to factor in is that we are fallen human beings, and so our feelings too are fallen and often mislead us. Of course, our thinking is also fallen and so can mislead us. But the process of articulating our thinking is inherently public and contestable, so that others can point out things we have missed, assumptions we have made, and unwarranted conclusions we have drawn—so that we are open to correction and to thinking again. The same processes are not available to us if we simply hand over power to feelings. And if we have trouble changing our thinking, it is often because (irrational) feelings give us an attachment to an idea that we should be letting go of.
It is fascinating, then, to read in John’s gospel that the love and compassion of God is made known in the person of Jesus, and he is the logos of God—not simply the spoken word of God expressing his will and power in the Old Testament, but the rational principle of the universe from Greek philosophical thinking. This is no cold rationalism; in John’s gospel Jesus is more clearly human than anywhere else in the New Testament, as he hungers, thirsts, is tired and move to tears in grief. But the truth he brings is both public and contestable. The great theme of John’s depiction of Jesus is the trial motif, where the truth about Jesus is demonstrated for all to see, where witnesses testify on either side and where, following the climactic debate with Pilate (‘What is truth?’), judgement is rendered—though it turns out to be judgement on the ‘prince of power of this age’ and on those who thought they were in a position to judge. For John, belief is personal and it is relational, but it is also true. The truth shall set us free (John 8.32) and in order for Jesus’ followers to be one, they must be ‘sanctified in the truth‘ (John 17.17). Although Jesus is warm, feeling and compassionate, John depicts him as bringing the truth of his Father against the irrational feelings of his opponents, trapped as they are in their anger, jealousy and insecurity.
If we are going to move on in our debates, we must acknowledge all the feelings involved—but instead of letting them enslave us, we must allow the truth to set us free.
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